Breaking the unbroken tradition

I ne can ne I ne mai tellen alle fie wunder ne alle fie pines 5at hi diden wrecce men on bis land . . .

—Peterborough Chronicle, Second Continuation


One of the methods used in this book to track down the myths that have clouded our interpretations of the historical development of English is to find evidence of dominant discourse archives and to interpret where they begin to break down. Foucault’s understanding of discourse (cf. chap. 1) is that it is a set of statements that help to construct discontinuity. The very coherence and apparent unity of a discourse is the dispersion of elements involving discontinuity. Hence discursive formations are groups of statements in any order, with any function and with any correlation to other statements determined by the disunity rather than the unity of the discourse. The objects, forms and themes of discourse are crucially dependent on external conditions. In this sense, a “discourse” is any group of statements that belongs to a single system or a group of statements different from other groups of statements.

Foucault’s understanding of discourse thus implies that any appearance of coherence in a discourse is illusory and that discontinuity, heterogeneity and change characterise discourse rather than continuity, homogeneity and permanence. Looked at historically, discourses tend to appear or disappear to accompany the rise and fall of human institutions in Braudel’s temps conjoncturel. Braudel’s focus on three timescales—la longue duree, le temps conjoncturel and l’evenement—is an attempt to move historians away from a linear conceptualisation of time in which history records a teleological movement towards the achievement of a perfect homogeneous world: a history that marks the march of human progress. The medieval conceptualisation of time was cyclical, not linear, and this insight will play an important role in the assessment of the change of archive to be discussed in this chapter.

We saw in chapter 1 that a discourse archive is anything but a library. It is defined by Foucault as “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (1972: 129). The archive determines how statements are grouped in accordance with “conjunctural” changes along Braudel’s longue duree. An archive has the appearance of being a systematic collection of historical statements following a historical event, a system that determines how statements occur as historical events. According to Blommaert, an archive consists of “the macro-sociological forces and formations that define and determine what can be said, expressed, heard, and understood in particular societies, particular milieux, particular historical periods” (2005: 102).

In reconsidering the historical genesis of the Beowulf manuscript in the previous chapter, the ancient language myth was challenged by showing how Beowulf does not sit easily within the nineteenth-century discursive construction of the longevity of English. The dominant discourse archive to which that myth belongs is that of the nation-state, in which one homogeneous language in a supposedly homogeneous speech community symbolically represents the positive values of the state. It is an archive that has clouded our view of what Beowulf meant to those who copied it—or even wrote it.

It is hardly possible to assess whether the “Beowulf project” embarked upon by the two scribes represents a caesura in some pre-Conquest archive. But it is interesting to note that there is no text quite like Beowulf among the other Anglo-Saxon texts that have come down to us. Its subject matter is secular, its composition appears to be derived from that of folk poetry, but it displays, like no other Anglo-Saxon poetic text, an expert command of archaic forms of diction and control over the metrical conventions of alliterative poetry on the part of whoever constructed it.[1]

Textual manifestations from earlier periods of Anglo-Saxon that might help to bolster the longevity of English myth are certainly available. Consider, for example, the various runic inscriptions; the Anglo-Saxon translation from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum; Bede’s death song; Caedmon’s hymn, which can be found in ten different manuscript versions ranging from early Northumbrian to West Saxon; the early Latin-Anglo-Saxon Anglian glosses; Alfredian and other translations; the laws of England; charters in

English; the records from Canterbury and Worcester; lists of kings, saints and bishops; and many more. The myth itself, however, is not just about the great age of the English language; it also relies on the parallel belief that any literary tradition begins with epic poetry (cf. the significance of Homer’s Odyssey or the Finnish Kalevaala), from which an unbroken literary tradition may be traced. Our own current discourse on the history of the English language, then, has become inextricably entangled with a discourse on the beginnings of “English literature”. The discourse can be traced back to the antiquarians of the sixteenth century, but it began to flourish in the latter half of the nineteenth century and has lasted till the present day.

The approach to the texts that I wish to discuss in this chapter (the Anglo- Saxon Chronicles [ASC]) is that they were originally the textual production of a dominant sociopolitical discourse representing an archive that was already changing in the eleventh century, before the Norman Conquest, and had lost virtually all significance after the Conquest. At the centre of the discussion are the First and Second Continuations of the Peterborough Chronicle, which display evidence to counter the assumption that there is an unbroken tradition of “English” reaching back at least as far as the seventh century ad, and I shall call the myth lying at the heart of this ideological belief the myth of the unbroken tradition of English. The myth rests on the unfounded ideological assumption that speakers of English, although oppressed by the Norman yoke after the time of the Conquest till around 1250 ad, were in some sense conscious of a “glorious past” and hung onto their language until it finally gained the upper hand over French in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The breakdown of the archive encapsulated in the ASC becomes evident in the increasing degree to which metapragmatic and metadiscursive linguistic expressions are used, marking a significant discursive change in that archive which did not survive after 1155. The evidence thus shows that, contrary to the recurrent insistence in histories of English that there was an unbroken English tradition, the changing discursive practices of the ASC and the final transformation of its sociopolitical function from a system of social control to a narrative record of anarchic violence and social injustice represents a very clear discursive discontinuity.

In the following section I shall state what I understand by metapragmatic and metadiscursive expressions and explain the term “inscribed orality”. I intend to use Foucault’s understanding of the discourse archive to trace some of the linguistic signs of a breakdown in a dominant archive from the end of the ninth to the twelfth century in later sections of this chapter. The basic pattern which I shall trace out is a movement away from a written/oral set of discursive practices to one in which written practices were dominant. In the period of breakdown itself, written texts show increasing features of orality in which metapragmatic and metadiscursive expressions become increasingly frequent until there is a striking discontinuation of the discourse itself. However, before I do this, I need to stress once again my criticism of the following statement by Foucault:

It is not possible for us to describe our own archive, since it is from within these

rules that we speak____The archive cannot be described in its totality; and in its

presence it is unavoidable. (1972: 146-147)

The point made in chapter 1 was that different discourses will coexist or compete with one another and that it is more than likely that an individual functions in a number of different archives, which may overlap or be inconsistent with one another, thus contradicting Foucault’s idea that a historical archive is a collection of statements that we cannot interpret.

  • [1] My own hunch is that scribe B was principally responsible for putting the text together, but thisdoesn’t necessarily mean that scribe B “wrote” Beowulf. The modern notion of the author is in any case inappropriate here.
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